Which pots to use – a guide for beginners

You have many good choices when choosing which pot to use to start growing your herbs or vegetables. 

Here in this guide we will look at material, size, drainage and overall look and feel.

For the impatient reader I will already now you which pots I prefer to use when growing herbs and vegetables.

My Preferred pots and containers growing herbs and vegetables

When growing from seed I always use square recyclable plastic pots. As the seedlings develop I transplant them into terracotta pots or directly into the vegetable garden. 

Using plastic pots to plant seeds and develop seedlings
I prefer using plastic starter pots for all my seeds

The plastic starter pots are 7 centimeters (3 inches) and you can pick up a pack of 20-30 pots for next to nothing. The pots are recyclable and can be used over and over. 

The size of the terracotta pots I use varies with type of herb or vegetable. It also depends on whether I plant one or several seedlings per pot. 

For herbs that spread easily like mint, I transplant seedlings into containers made of resin. 

Resin being a composite blend offers a wide range of looks and designs but are still lightweight and easy to manage. They are also more affordable than the larger size terracotta pots.

For vegetables that I grow from seedlings or plants I use larger sized resin containers or simply plant them straight in the vegetable garden.

I also use resin containers for invasive vegetables like horseradish to prevent the roots from spreading and the horseradish taking over the entire area.

I have also experimented with pots made from organic materials where the whole pot is biodegradable. The advantage is of course that you can transplant the entire pot without disturbing the seedlings. This can be an advantage with herbs that have delicate root systems or tap roots like coriander and dill.

I have, however, not seen a benefit that outweighs the increase in cost. Using plastic pots works really well as long as you are gentle and take care when transplanting.

But let’s move on and look at how we know which pots to use and why.

How to choose the best pot or container

All seeds and plants need soil, nutrients, light, air and water to thrive.

But more is not better.

It is very easy to overwater plants. Too much water will rot the root system and kill your plants. But this is also true when you do not provide enough water.

A pot that is too big will need more potting soil and cost you more money unnecessarily.

A pot made from cement will be heavy and impossible to move when more light is needed.

If the pot is too small the root system will not have room to develop.

The good news?

Choosing the right pot will make it much easier to look after your plants, and give you a better chance of success in the long run.

1. Which material to choose and why (or why not)

Terracotta pots

Terracotta is most people’s favorite material and the look only improves as the pot ages and develops that wonderful patina.

Terracotta is a porous material and allows air and water to pass through the walls. 

When you use a terracotta pot you will notice that the soil dries out quicker. 

On the plus side this helps prevent root rot. On the other hand you need to be aware if you place a terracotta plant in a really hot place. You will need to water more often.

Terracotta plants are also usually designed with drainage holes underneath and are sold with accompanying saucers to protect the surface underneath your pot.

The only negatives with terracotta is that the material is brittle and will break should you drop the pot. Terracotta has also been known to crack in cold weather.

Pro tip 1: You need to pre-soak the terracotta pot in water for about 30 minutes before filling it with soil. A dry terracotta plant will absorb the water from the potting soil leaving you with dry soil for your newly potted plant.

Pro tip 2: If you do not pre-soak your terracotta pot the soil will dry up and shrink as the terracotta pot absorbs moisture from the soil. This will create an empty space between the soil and the terracotta pot. This empty space will hurt the plant’s ability to regulate water levels and overall give the plant a worse growing environment.

Glass pots

Pots made of glass can look really cool. Especially when we plant in other mediums than soil like gravel, perlite, rockwool, clay pellets or coconut fibre.

But you have to be careful as the sun can burn the roots if the glass pot is exposed to direct sunlight. 

Glass pots do not breathe and are also usually not designed with drain holes. This increases the risk of overwatering. 

Personally I can only see one possible advantage with pots made of glass. They can look really cool on the window sill.

Also, cachepots or double potting is not an option as it would defeat the purpose of a glass pot if we could see the inner pot.

Ceramic pots

Ceramic pots look great but suffer from not having a drain hole.

Testing to grow Thai basil in ceramic pot without inner pot or pot liner
Testing Thai basil in ceramic pot without inner pot / pot liner

Depending on the color ceramic pots can get hot (darker colors) and there is always a risk of overwatering as there is no drain hole.

You can of course double pot and use a inner pot or pot liner but for me it is all design with no added functionality.

As you can see in the image I have successfully grown Thai basil in ceramic pots. I do find it more difficult to control watering.

It is especially frustrating when you are a bit heavy handed watering. You can see that the soil is a bit too wet but there is nothing you can do. And yes, it does happen every now and then when I have many posts to look after.

Concrete containers

I do not use concrete containers any more as they are just too heavy to maneuver. There are of course lighter weight alternatives but I have found that I prefer lighter and equally beautiful resin containers.

Concrete containers do however insulate better than resin in colder climates. But as resin is a light weight material I simply move my containers inside. Alternatively I cover the containers and use wooden blocks to raise them a couple of inches above the ground. 

If you do use concrete containers you may want to consider double potting. Otherwise you may find that your plant becomes pot-bound where the root system latches onto the inside of the container. If this happens it will be hard work to move the plant to another container. 

Metal pots

Metal containers come in all shapes and colors and are very affordable. At least the mass produced varieties at the garden center.

I use metal pots but only as cachepots with double potting.

You should however keep in mind that metal pots are prone to overheating. The metal works as a conductor and will heat up the soil to a point where it may kill the plant.

Metal pots do however make good cache pots as long as you use good plant liners or inside pots and keep the pot out of direct sunlight.

Metal pots are usually not designed with drain holes, increasing the risk of overwatering. 

Plastic pots

Plastic pots are affordable and nowadays also recyclable and environmentally friendly.  

Drain holes make it possible to water fragile seedlings from underneath
Watering plastic pots from underneath

I use plastic pots for planting seeds and cultivating seedlings. 

Plastic pots hold moisture well. This is important as starter pots do not hold a lot of soil and could otherwise dry out quickly. 

Drain holes ensure good drainage and make it possible to water from underneath using a tray or a container.  

Pots from organic materials

Pots made from peat, fiber, paper or other organic material are a great option for plants with delicate root systems or tap roots like fennel, dill and coriander. 

Using peat pellets to develop chili seedlings
Time to transplant seedlings in peat pellets when roots are showing

The pots are very porous and you need to keep on top of watering as they will dry out quicker. I prefer to water from underneath using a tray or a container.  

The idea is of course that as the pot is completely dio-degrabable you can plant the entire pot in your vegetable or herb garden.

There are of course also a couple of negatives. The organic pots are expensive and if they do not decompose completely your plant may be hindered from spreading out and developing a healthy root system.

2. Choosing the right size pots

You can more often than not use your common sense when choosing the size pot to use.

Most importantly, if your pot is too small the root system cannot develop and your plant will not thrive. 

And there is an easy way to check. Gently ease the plant out of its pot. If you see a lot of roots it is time to find a larger pot. If all you can see is soil, you are fine.

For me it works best to start with 7 centimeters (3 inches) plastic pots and then transplant into my garden or larger terracotta pots when the seedlings are large enough to manage.

I am guilty of oversowing and sometimes have to thin out the plants as they develop. But I do always take great care to transplant the whole root system including the soil. 

As root systems are fragile I never separate the seedlings when I transplant into a bigger pot. I wait for the plants to develop and settle in their new environment before thinning out the weaker plants as needed.

When I move seedlings from one pot to another I tend to use what is available. Within reason of course.

It is a waste of money and good potting soil to use large pots when it is not necessary.

If I only have larger pots available, it happens, I simply plant several seedlings in one pot.

One rule of thumb I have is to always transplant into a pot that is at least 5 centimeters (2 inches) larger than the original pot.

And if in doubt, ease out the plant and check how the root system is developing. 

3. Pots with drain holes

In my experience, more plants die from overwatering than from drying out. 

When you choose your pot you can make watering easier or more difficult.

Pots from non-porous materials without drain holes are more likely to be overwatered. And in my experience it is essential for pots to have drain holes.

If you plant in a metal pot with no drain hole you need a lot more experience and skills to balance the watering correctly. A terracotta pot with drain holes will be more forgiving.

I will give you two tips when it comes to watering your plants.

  1. Check the soil by inserting you finger an inch into the soil to gauge whether the soil dry enough to water
  2. If you are unsure if you need to water or not – do not water. More plants die from overwatering than a mild dry out. 

4. Look and overall design

I sometimes use more decorative cachepots with inner pots or pot liners to make my herb garden look attractive. 

It serves no function but as the pots live indoors for large parts of the year I want them to look good.

And do use inner pots or pot liners if you share the same weakness for the non-functional but good-looking.

Not double potting in a pot without a drain hole will make it extremely difficult to master the watering. 

The best solution is of course to use terracotta pots with saucers to protect the surface underneath. But sometimes we do want a splash of color….

Pro tip: Keep testing and learning what works for you. Becoming a good gardener is part science and part art. And experience helps.

Testing growing chili from seeds in different type pots
Growing chili from seeds in different type of pots.

Why not over seed and experiment? Water one plant as you always do and be a bit more conservative with the other plant. I can promise you will learn a lot in the process. 

Or plant seeds at the same time in different type pots and see which one works best for you. Here I tested growing chili from seeds using plastic starter pots, organic peat pellets and a ceramic pot.

It was an interesting project. Conclusion? I still use recyclable plastic pots as they are more economical and give me all the control I need.

Meet the author: Mattias is an experienced gardener spending most of his free time on his knees among herbs, plants, and garden vegetables. For the past two years, he has been sharing gardening projects and how-to tutorials on the NordicLavender website and YouTube channel.